The Seduction of Facts
February 02, 2016
Who doesn’t love a good fact? There is an entire genre of games dedicated to our ability to recall them, aptly entitled ‘trivia contests’ in English. Setting this form up in a box led to one of the most successful boardgames of all time, Trivial Pursuit, while dramatising the agonising uncertainties in the face of such questions gave rise to one of the most successful TV game shows of all time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly, we love facts. So what could be dangerous about them?
I have previously made the case that understanding facts as knowledge is misleading since all facts are the residue of the practices that produced and justified them, and further that it is better to understand knowledge as a practice, or rather, a collection of practices. Nothing in this arrangement gives us reasons to be suspicious of facts, since all I’ve done is change the context for understanding what a fact is, and cast doubt that someone who can repeat facts (who has ‘general knowledge’) is genuinely in possession of something that could be justifiably termed ‘knowledge’. Yet there is something significantly misleading about our love of facts whenever it emerges in a political context: facts are invoked as a means of ending discussion, and this is toxic to politics.
The problem is so subtle it would be easy to miss it, and rests with the way we have constructed the relationship between politics and the sciences, a topic repeatedly explored by Bruno Latour. Democratic politics, in the sense of the political practices of the ancient Greeks, was about every citizen having a chance to be heard and decisions being made in a manner that renders everyone equal. Contemporary democracy, needless to say, offers neither of these things. We vote for a representative based upon geographical criteria, and every citizen has the opportunity to speak, but only the famous or those accredited as experts have a chance to be heard, since we have largely eliminated public debate and replaced it with the circus of the abnormal we call ‘news’.
What facts offer to contemporary government is a means of circumventing politics, because where ‘the facts are known’ there is no need for discussion – or so the standing policy goes. This is a tremendously convenient state of affairs for politicians, because they do not need to engage in politics at all (at least, not with the electorate) whenever they have a convenient fact at hand to short circuit any discussions. To make matters worse, those in opposition feel compelled to act as if politics were only a matter of establishing the correct facts, and not about discussing the meaning of those facts, let alone taking into account the practices involved in producing facts in the first place.
Facts are seductive because they remove the need to think, or to talk, about anything. The policy conflicts over climate change circumvent any actual political discussion since it has been reduced to a simple ‘battle for the facts’: either human activity has tangibly affected the global climate (fact!) or climate researchers have misrepresented the data (fact!). It’s facts versus facts in the arena of public derision, and nobody seems to be quite aware how the focus on ‘which facts are true’ removes any productive discussion on the topic. We have successfully managed to turn politics into a game show, a sport – and the news, in its commitment to ignoring the familiar and reporting only the unusual, facilitates this narrowing of vision.
As someone who feels very strongly about our worrying relationship to our own world, I’ve spent a decade watching on in horror as ‘climate change’ replaces ‘global warming’ as a means of reinforcing a partisan conflict that is hugely effective at blocking any discussion of the problems of human exploitation of limited resources. To make climate change the issue is to pick out one conflict over the facts and fail to have a discussion about the interrelation of dozens of issues, such as fires in Indonesia that only Al Jazeera paid significant attention to, or the shocking rate of extinctions in our time, which doesn’t even qualify as news any more because it’s all-too-familiar.
I have suggested that part of this problem comes from continuing to think, as Plato did, about a single real world, when the vast range of knowledge-practices might better be understood as a multiverse, as many real worlds that overlap. Facts, in this understanding (the products of objective knowledge-practices), are what can be stabilised between these worlds, whether through the tremendous work of scientists to produce apparatus that resist objections, or though the deductive work of historians, forensic police, and many more practices besides.
Yet the meaning of facts is not objective knowledge, and never can be so. That ‘smoking causes cancer’ is not a reason to stop smoking in itself; you have to start bringing in moral judgements about death, or life expectancy, or perhaps economic judgements about healthcare spending before this fact acquires so specific a meaning. These meanings are not ‘mere opinions’ that the facts can simply brush aside. The vast open spaces of meaning are something we have to negotiate for ourselves, both individually and collectively, and this process is utterly separate from those practices that give rise to the facts. Part of this negotiation of meaning is what is, or should be, called politics.
You could be forgiven for thinking that I am against facts, that they don’t matter to me, or that I want to make all facts entirely relative. But I am actually intensely serious about factual knowledge, for all that I recognise that it is often, as the phrase ‘trivia’ implies, trivial. It annoys me when my son’s picture book mislabels a newt as a lizard, or his book about sea creatures has a picture of a red-eared terrapin, which only lives in fresh water. They got the facts wrong, and that bothers me. But it bothers me far more that we get politics wrong by thinking it is a solely a question of establishing the facts. The facts by themselves aren’t enough: we need to establish the meaning of the facts. And that is something that cannot be done on our behalf; we must do it ourselves.
The question of humanity's relationship to terrestrial resources is one for a different day. (Though I can't resist noting that the predictions of Julian Simon, who didn't ignore human ingenuity, seemed much more frequently correct than those of Paul Ehrlich et al.)
To your main point: The way that facts can be used as clubs to try to end a discussion is interesting because it seems to directly contradict what I think is the real killer of useful discussion: the emotional need to be undisputed.
Suppose we agree on your definition of "facts," meaning that statements of belief about reality are usually less accurate than we think they are. If so, I can agree generally with your observation that fact-dropping to try to silence opposition to one's beliefs does happen. I've seen the kind of behavior you describe, and I also object to it because politics -- policies imposing power over other people -- matters.
But I don't agree that facts are the real problem. There are two reasons for this.
1. There has to be some basis for beliefs, and the only two practical candidates are facts+logic and feelings. Facts, as you say, are not noumena of Platonic perfection... but they are, at their best, functionally useful descriptions of reality. Even things that aren't perfect may have some value.
I'm aware that there's a substantial body of thought on the limits to human understanding of reality, and I won't try to dispute the skeptics. But if you don't go down the "we can't ever really know anything" rabbit-hole, then it's possible to say that even if no statement about reality is perfect, some statements about reality are better (more accurate/truthful) than others.
The key, I think, is a having a defined observational methodology. "GDP grew by 0.3% in Q4" is the product, even if imperfect, of a generally objective observational methodology that others can review for relative quality. And the moment you grant that some statements of belief about reality have this kind of qualitative value is the moment you agree that facts can be a tolerable basis from which to generate beliefs about reality (including human political reality), and that even-imperfect facts are a better basis for generating such beliefs than feelings.
In short, if we are to be able to have any functional conversation on any subject at all, we have to be able to explain why we believe what we believe, and why we think our belief is a more functionally accurate picture of reality than other beliefs. For that, facts -- statements describing reality that have value because they were produced through a visible observational methodology -- are both useful and are more valuable than feelings. That facts can be abused to try to end a conversation, rather than enhance it, is true. But facts have real persuasive value despite that flaw because the quality of facts (i.e., the quality of the observational methodology that produced a statement of fact) can be assessed and compared against other such statements.
To sum up: denying the use of facts in political discussion is not justified, because facts can have honest persuasive value. And denying the use of facts in politics is not practical, because what's a workable alternative?
2. All the above is interesting, but IMO it misses the real problem. The real problem, I would say, is not the use of facts to end discussion. It's the desire to end discussion.
The real problem is that anyone who wants to try to "win" a discussion _by any means_ is allowed to do so. That, and not the effort to provide the reality-based evidence (even if imperfect) that led to one's beliefs, is IMO the real threat to functional political conversation.
I've seen people try to use facts this way. It's one of the reasons why Paul Krugman is not worth reading. Facts, for him, are not agents of persuasion; they are weapons for smiting unbelievers. But for all the Krugmans, I've seen many more people resort to emotionalism to silence any expression of disagreement. They poison the well of discussion by mocking as stupid or evil anyone who disagrees with them, then when their target objects, they win when the moderator shuts off further discussion.
Whether through facts or emotionalism, though, the goal is the same: make those other people shut up. Fighting that and not the use of facts whose quality can at least be gauged, seems to me the much more important war to wage.
So while I see your point about using facts as weapons to silence dissent, I suggest that the true problem is not one of tools, but of the need to use tools in this way, and the apparently increasing willingness of our culture to tolerate such tool abuse.
Thanks for another thought-provoking post, and for letting me comment.
Posted by: Bart Stewart | February 02, 2016 at 05:58 PM
The idea that the desire to end a discussion is the root problem is a fascinating one, with a lot of merit to it. I will definitely ponder this, and I think you might be correct that this is the core of the problem I'm attempting to discuss here.
I was trying to be careful in wording this, in that I didn't want it to seem that I was 'against' facts. That isn't my target at all - it is a piece about how facts are used and received, and not targeting facts as such. But I do think there is a political problem relating to the use of facts that we aren't very good at owning up to.
So let me use your example:
"'GDP grew by 0.3% in Q4' is the product, even if imperfect, of a generally objective observational methodology that others can review for relative quality."
Absolutely. But GDP as a conceptual measure depends on all sorts of presuppositions that don't get the discussion they need or deserve. The idea that we should be judging political success or otherwise on an economic metric forces a particular meaning into usage that should be open to both scrutiny and debate. I for one am highly sceptical that this is a healthy form of politics - I doubt that these facts are politically virtuous. They frame discussion in a way that has presupposed what should have been up for debate.
Take the US, for instance. Highest GDP in the world - political success story, therefore. But of course, GDP is about the money the nation generates, and says very little about any other aspect of life there, nor for that matter the effect of that nation on the world as a whole. Trading in 'the facts' about GDP supports a mythology that doesn't question the assumptions by which GDP is deployed as a measure. That's toxic politics right there.
(Re: Simon vs. Erhlich, don't they both make this same narrow assessment of the meaning of resources i.e. as standing reserves for exploitation? My point about limited resources was not particularly about what is available for humans, but about what we are losing by having such a narrow conception of 'resource'.)
It seems to me that US politics and news coverage is full of this kind of gerrymandering of meaning, and the situation is only marginally better elsewhere. I remain shocked at what has been offered on US healthcare thus far given what I have learned about the US healthcare system fist-hand. In particular, statistics that assume insurance-funded high tech healthcare as the model lead to very disturbing political outcomes where 'facts' are used to obscure meanings by assigning all decision-making to a medical industry that has set itself up to serve its own needs - but don't get me started on this sideline or I'll never shut up! :)
I chose 'climate change' as an example because it seems the clearest example where 'facts' have not possessed the weight to tip the scales either way, except where people have already committed to a particular interpretation. And the problem here is that we aren't discussing the meaning of the facts in question. We are locked onto the narrative surrounding climate scientists with phrases like 'climate deniers' that remove any possibility of discussing the meaning of what's going on. It's totally focused on whether or not there is climate change as a phenomena. This is teeth-grindingly unproductive politics to my eyes!
It seems we are in agreement that facts have a place in politics. And I think we are also in agreement that the way they are currently being used in politics is unacceptably counter-productive. I think our only disagreement is that you seem to favour continuing to focus upon facts in politics, whereas I think we must supplement those facts with an urgently-needed discussion of their meaning.
Many, many thanks for your comment - I truly welcome these kind of thoughtful interjections.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | February 03, 2016 at 11:19 AM